No. 8 Arkansas opens on target with preseason goals

Updated: October 4, 2003, 12:42 PM ET

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- When Arkansas opened practice in mid-August, several Razorbacks talked big about the Bowl Championship Series and returning to the Southeastern Conference title game.

Some even uttered what should have been unthinkable for a school with one bowl win in 17 years and a team that entered the 2003 season on a two-game losing streak: "National championship."

Reporters and broadcasters paused, stopped jotting down notes and took a deep breath while players made seemingly outlandish predictions.

A few notes survived that day.

"We're about the win the championship. We have to, anything less is unacceptable," said senior wide receiver George Wilson, one of the most respected and levelheaded Razorbacks on the roster.

Stopping there and thinking SEC championship would be reasonable. Arkansas did advance to the title game last year, losing 30-3 to Georgia.

But Wilson didn't stop there. After a few words on the 24 seniors and adapting to some new schemes, he made a leap that would have made fellow receiver and All-American long jumper Richard Smith proud.

"The rest is going to take care of itself, not just an SEC championship, but a national championship," he said. "The national championship goes through Atlanta first."

Yes, that's possible. The SEC championship game winner has won three national titles -- Alabama in 1992, Florida in 1996 and Tennessee in 1998.

But did Arkansas need to think about that?

After a 4-0 start with wins at Texas and Alabama, the No. 8 Razorbacks are making believers out of those who doubt such intentions.

"A lot of media people probably are surprised, but the players, coaches and staff aren't," said senior linebacker Jimarr Gallon, who intercepted Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle to set up Arkansas' field goal in the second overtime of a 34-31 win in Tuscaloosa last week.

"We just have faith in ourselves and we continue to believe we can win every game," Gallon said.

The Razorbacks, who have won 10 straight regular-season games, were off this week before beginning eight straight weeks on the field. They can use the time to rest a litany of injured starters and contributors.

Wilson has a sprained ankle. Cornerback Lawrence Richardson just returned to practice from an ankle sprain he suffered Sept. 13 in the 38-28 win over Texas. Safety Bo Mosley hyperextended his knee at Alabama.

On the defensive line, one place where Arkansas doesn't have much depth, Arrion Dixon (knee) and Chase Pressley (ankle) are on the mend, too.

Gallon, who took over at outside linebacker when Tony Bua moved to free safety, has played the last three games with a cast protecting the ring finger on his left hand. On the first day of tackling drills, he broke it in 10 places while tackling running back Cedric Cobbs.

Gallon thought it was jammed so he yanked on it and played two more plays, worsening the injury. Now, he ignores the pain until after the game, but he hopes the week off will let the finger heal enough that he won't need the cast against Auburn on Oct. 11.

Meanwhile, when Cobbs lines up against the Tigers at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, it will be the deepest he has played into a season without injury since 1999.

Cobbs has finally improved on the form he showed that year, when he set an Arkansas freshman record with 668 yards rushing.

He has already rushed for more yards than any season since with 562 on 88 carries. Almost all of his carries have resulted in positive yardage, with only 10 yards lost. He's averaging 6.4 yards per carry, better than the 5.8 he had as a freshman, and his 140.5 yards per game ranks third nationally.

"He came in as a ball of fire as freshman," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "He's been hurt, after that (the) biggest thing he's matured and he's always an unselfish hard worker. Instead of always looking for 70, 80-yard runs, he's looking for four yards and running hard for those four."

Cobbs showed that against Alabama, rushing 36 times for 198 yards, both career highs. His longest carry was for 22 yards.

"I'd hate to play one that's better," Alabama coach Mike Shula said. "Seeing him live, he's stronger than maybe I would have thought. He's more powerful. He kept coming and coming and coming."

Cobbs' running has been made more effective by two things -- a powerful offensive line and an efficient passing game using two quarterbacks.

Starter Matt Jones has completed 59.6 percent of his passes (31 of 52) for 427 yards and four touchdowns. Backup Ryan Sorahan, who led two second-half scoring drives in the win at Alabama, is 19-of-35 for 319 yards and a touchdown.

Their first three interceptions of the season came in the second half at Alabama. Also in that game, Cobbs' fumbled at the Alabama 13, which was the first by an Arkansas running back in 609 carries.

Yet the Razorbacks still found a way to come back from a 21-point deficit.

The seniors Wilson talked about at the beginning of the season kept Arkansas calm at Alabama and are expected to do the same as the Razorbacks look to their next eight games. Provided they keep winning, they should be favored in every one until the season finale at LSU.

"It's not going to be smooth sailing every game. Every game is not going to be just go in there and blow the team out," Wilson said. "Last week was just another challenge for us to overcome. A lot of teams would have easily started pointing the finger, got rid of the game plan and gave up all hope. Instead of doing that, we pulled together even stronger and had to believe even more."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index